Biden decries China squeeze on US media

US vice president Joe Biden shakes hands with Chinese president Xi Jingping in Beijing on December 4, 2013.
Image caption US Vice President Joe Biden publicly criticised China's restrictions on US media organisations during his recent visit

China is putting the squeeze on the New York Times and Bloomberg News, and it could have severe consequences for press freedom.

The nation has blocked internet access to the two organisations' websites, denied access to key events, such as the recent meeting between British Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, and delayed visa renewal for more than two dozen reporters.

On Thursday night, during his visit to Beijing, Vice President Joe Biden said the US government has taken notice. He became the first high-ranking US official to publicly address this issue, telling a group of US and other foreign correspondents in Beijing that he has taken up their cause with the Chinese leadership.

"Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences,'' Biden said at a meeting with business leaders earlier that day, as reported by the Times. "We have many disagreements, and some profound disagreements, on some of those issues right now, in the treatment of US journalists."

The Times' Mark Landler has more on the significance of the latest actions by the Chinese government:

While China has long harassed and even expelled reporters whose coverage displeased the authorities, correspondents here said the latest tactics represented a marked escalation. Privately, Chinese officials have told reporters that they are linked to news coverage.

The reprisals appear to be aimed at entire news organisations rather than individual reporters. In the most extreme cases — The Times and Bloomberg — the moves threaten to effectively shut down the organisations' China news bureaus, as well as harm their business operations in the country.

Evan Osnos in the New Yorker goes into greater detail on what he sees as the motives behind China's recent actions. Six years ago, he writes, the Chinese had embarked on a programme of openness to foreign journalists as a condition for hosting the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Two things convinced Chinese leaders to change course, however.

The first was the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, which showed the revolutionary power of information technology combined with a restless population confronted by intractable income disparity and powerlessness.

And the second were stories published by the Times and Bloomberg revealing the vast sums acquired by the families of China's leaders.

That's when China began its campaign against the two news organisations - culminating in the recent visa showdown.

Mr Osnos writes:

I spent some time with a senior Chinese diplomat recently, and when I asked what motivated the threat of expulsion, the diplomat said that the Times and Bloomberg were seeking nothing short of removing the Communist Party from power, and that they must not be allowed to continue. That argument surprised me: I had expected a bland procedural defence - this was a blunt expression of fear.

Last month, the Atlantic's Matt Schiavenza wrote that China's actions have many Western observers questioning their assumptions about the future of journalism in China.

"For years, foreigners have employed a comforting fantasy about China's trajectory, which is that as the country grows wealthier and more powerful, its norms regarding press freedom will coalesce with 'ours'," he writes. That may not be the case, however. "Far from leading to liberalization, China's continued growth has only convinced the Communist Party that their approach to media control has been correct all along."

Following the meeting between Mr Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, professor Zhu Feng of the School of International Studies in Peking University told Hong Kong's South China Morning Post: "The most important thing for this new model of relationship [between China and the US] is trust, and figuring out each others' bottom line, and a better communication system. ... The fact that they talked for more than five hours, which is unusual, indicates that they have quite a pragmatic approach in handling problems."

Whether this pragmatic approach includes reaching an understanding on press freedom in China remains to be seen. By the end of the year, this could all be revealed as a case of brinksmanship on the part of the Chinese government. It could also, however, herald a new era of chilled media rights.